My Word: The kiwis and the sabras

If our nearest neighbors were Australians, and they were separated by an ocean, our outlook on life and diplomatic policy would be different.

By
July 31, 2011 06:02
New Zealand Christchurch earthquake

New Zealand Christchurch earthquake_311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

When media outlets in New Zealand earlier this month began speculating that Ofer Mizrahi, one of three Israeli backpackers killed in February’s devastating earthquake in Christchurch, was a Mossad agent, my first thought was: “That’s an improvement.” After all, when Israeli rescue teams raced to Haiti in 2010 and set up a field hospital complete with Xray and neo-natal facilities, a former British parliamentarian was among those who charged that it was part of an Israeli plot to harvest organs for transplant.

Spy stories I can take; blood libels frighten me.

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Mizrahi’s family, and the country as a whole, seemed more bemused than upset by the conspiracy theories emanating from New Zealand.

I only hope that Israel’s deterrent value is as strong in the Arab world as it evidently is in Wellington.

As an occasional correspondent on New Zealand Radio, I was interested in what was being said about us so far away. While I surfed the Net, struggling to cope with the heat wave, in New Zealand people were trying to handle snow damage.

Just as Sabras had trouble trying to imagine the vagaries of the winter weather, I bet Kiwis could not conceive of the debilitating effect of a scorching July. And that’s not the only thing that was hard to fathom. The heat in this part of the world is also metaphorical.

If our nearest neighbors were Australians, and they were separated by an ocean, I’m sure our outlook on life and diplomatic policy would be different.



A Kiwi journalist once pointed out to me, for instance, that the non-nuclear policy is an essential component of their national character – a character formed without the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad racing to build arms that could help him realize his call to wipe our country “off the map.”

All the New Zealanders I’ve met have been polite, restrained and reliable, with a well-developed sense of fair play and an understated sense of humor – something like the British I remember from my childhood.

If I had to try to sum up the national traits of my fellow Israelis, God bless ’em, it would be open, spontaneous, and with such a gift for chutzpa that we do it without realizing that in most countries it’s not considered good manners, let alone a way of life.

Israeli backpackers, for this reason, stick out wherever they happen to be (and they happen to be almost everywhere). Fellow travelers complain that Israelis are loud and cliquey. They are. The loudness is one of our less endearing, in-your-face characteristics. It’s made worse by the fact that Israelis are loud in Hebrew, a language not spoken as a mother tongue anywhere else.

The clannishness can also be partly attributed to the Hebrew. How many British, American, Australian or Kiwi travelers would be inclined to sit down at night and try to chat in a language other than English? But there’s another reason for the way Israelis simultaneously try to get away from it all while sticking together. And, as we say in Hebrew, “zar lo yavin et zeh” – “an outsider wouldn’t understand.”

The vast majority of Israeli backpackers are just out of the army. By the time someone’s finished IDF service, they have a language all their own.

Ditto a mind-set. There are certain code words which have nothing to do with the world of espionage, but everything to do with having completed an incredibly intense, often life-or-death, experience.

The New Zealanders who discussed the claims that the backpackers might be Mossad agents certainly couldn’t understand.

They all, very reasonably, pointed to the incident in 2004 when two Israelis were arrested for trying to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports.

The government and average citizen in New Zealand were outraged that Israel, an ally, would potentially endanger (or at least inconvenience) their travelers by using their diplomatic documents.

Much of the global village doesn’t understand the nature of global jihad – or Israel’s costly role in fighting it. Most Israelis, used to undergoing security checks everywhere from supermarkets to wedding halls – anywhere that could be and has been targeted by suicide bombers – have a different concept of security and inconvenience.

There’s no point in going into details about the passport fiasco (and they still think we’re super spies?) but it’s obvious, however, that Israel is not the only country whose operatives have assumed foreign identities for a delicate operation (and this, with the French precedent, is why New Zealand is so sensitive in the first place).

There are certain places where you cannot travel on an Israeli passport, and, unfortunately those are the same places sheltering the enemies of Israel and world peace.

Incidentally, the fact that Mizrahi had more than one passport – one of the reasons for the initial suspicions – is not unusual for Israelis. I know many immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who have dual and even triple nationalities.

Israeli journalists traveling to hot spots also prefer to use a second passport.

THE YEAR 2004 is not so long ago. For New Zealanders, the affair is still fresh. I try to think of all Israel has been through since then. Well, suicide attacks did drop – mainly because the first phase of the construction of the security fence was completed to keep the terrorists out. Nonetheless, more than 150 people have been killed in terror attacks.

Since 2004, the country has also been through one full-blown war (Lebanon II) and a mini-war (Operation Cast Lead) and some 10,000 missiles and mortars have landed here. (Indeed, while rescue teams in Christchurch were struggling to reach survivors of the quake, there was an escalation of missile fire from Gaza on southern Israel.) Israel’s vast experience in rescue work, after all, does not come from its experience with earthquakes but from the need to evacuate victims from buildings destroyed as a result of war and terrorism. It’s given us an expertise we are happy to share with others (something good should come out of the bad). Tellingly, too, Israel’s preparations for a likely tremor are basically the same as for the even-more-likely next conflict: Every home and public building is constructed with a missile-proof safe room or shelter which can double up as a refuge in times of natural disaster.

Following the latest spy scandal that wasn’t, many New Zealanders asked why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called his counterpart in Wellington four times on the day of the quake: Again, it’s hard to explain, at least in English. The principle “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lezeh,” “All Israel is responsible one for another,” is not an empty slogan. It’s why Israel is united in anguish at the continued fate of abducted soldier Gilad Schalit, for example.

I expect that the disaster in Christchurch made the local public pull together, united in adversity.

Israelis argue with each other – loudly, in Hebrew – but we share an empathy made stronger with every tragedy that befalls us.

It’s a powerful secret weapon.

We also want peace, even if we fight, noisily, about how to achieve it.

The good people in places like New Zealand will never really understand what we go through, but strangely I have no desire to trade places. It’s certainly not all bad here.

Being among open, spontaneous and fun-loving people has its advantages.

I do, however, harbor a dream of discovering what the peaceful life is like.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. liat@jpost.com


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